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Oregon Juvenile Prisoners Denied Law Libraries, Legal Assistance; Claims Not Heck-Barred

On June 5, 2017, an Oregon federal district court refused to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a state prisoner who alleged he was denied access to a law library and legal assistance while confined in a juvenile facility.

Hector Fernando Canales-Robles and Saamir Lopez-Cervantes were both 17 years old when they committed their offenses. Although they were tried as adults and sentenced to the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), state law required that they be confined in the physical custody of the Oregon Youth Authority (OYA) until they turned 25. At that time they would be transferred to the adult prison system to serve out the remainder of their sentences. Prisoners who present management problems, however, may be transferred to adult prison before age 25.

Had they been sent to the ODOC, Canales-Robles and Lopez-Cervantes would have had access to law libraries and legal assistance. However, the OYA had a longstanding policy and practice of refusing to provide legal resources to juvenile offenders.

OYA prisoners who tried to appeal their convictions and sentences were not allowed to advance through the prison’s “tag” system levels. That deprived them of privileges afforded to more “accountable” prisoners who did not file appeals.

Worse, pursuing appeals subjected OYA prisoners to discipline and removal from treatment programs. Staff routinely threatened that juveniles who were removed from treatment would be transferred to adult prisons where they would be raped, stabbed and physically assaulted. Needless to say, such threats chilled most juveniles from even attempting to appeal their convictions or sentences.

The time limits for Canales-Robles and Lopez-Cervantes to file their state and federal appellate remedies expired long before they were transferred from OYA to the adult prison system in 2014. As such, like all OYA prisoners, they were deprived of their fundamental constitutional right to meaningful access to the courts.

Nevertheless, Canales-Robles and Lopez-Cervantes filed untimely petitions for post­conviction relief (PCR) in state court in 2016. They argued that their inability to file PCR petitions while in OYA custody excused the untimeliness of their appeals. They also jointly filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that OYA officials had interfered with, and otherwise deprived them of, meaningful access to the courts. The federal court severed the case into separate actions.

The defendants moved to dismiss Canales-Robles’ suit, arguing that it was barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994); alternatively, they requested that the court abstain from hearing the case due to the pending PCR actions under Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971) and R.R. Comm. v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941).

State officials also relied on a 2014 federal district court ruling in Koch v. Jester, a case in which the court concluded that similar claims against OYA were barred under Heck and Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343 (1996).

Like Canales-Robles and Lopez-Cervantes, Seth Koch was denied the ability to file timely appeals while in OYA custody. Once he reached the adult prison system he filed an untimely PCR petition and related federal lawsuit.

Rather than conducting its own analysis in the Koch case, the district court noted the absence of Ninth Circuit precedent and followed the reasoning of the Seventh Circuit’s decisions in Hoard v. Reddy, 175 F.3d 531 (7th Cir. 1999) and Burd v. Sessler, 702 F.2d 429 (7th Cir. 2012). The court held that under Lewis, prisoners must show “actual injury” to bring a denial of court access claim, and ultimately concluded that a prisoner could not show “actual injury” unless he prevailed on his appeal, which would imply the invalidity of the conviction and thus be barred by Heck.

Koch appealed but the state quickly and quietly settled, allowing him to proceed with his untimely PCR action without objection. Yet the court’s decision in Koch served to bar any other OYA prisoners from prevailing in similar suits.

Sure enough, the same state defendants and same Assistant Attorney General who settled Koch argued that the ruling in that case required dismissal of the federal lawsuits filed by Canales-Robles and Lopez-Cervantes.

Fortunately, however, those cases had been assigned to a different judge who concluded “that intervening developments in the law require the court to revisit the issues presented in Koch. Subsequent decisions call into question the applicability of Hoard and Burd, particularly in the Ninth Circuit.”

Following the reasoning of a March 2017 California federal district court in Sprinkle v. Robinson, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:02-cv-01563-JAM-EFB, magistrate judge John V. Acosta found that “the persuasiveness of Burd and Hoard ... is less so now.”

Acosta then conducted his own analysis. He ultimately departed from the reasoning in Burd and Hoard, as well as the ruling in Koch, and wrote in a report and recommendation in Canales-Robles’ case that his claims were not barred by Heck.

Unlike in Koch, Canales-Robles and Lopez-Cervantes had no interest in a quick settlement that served to harm other prisoners by leaving in place bad precedent. They planned to certify their suit as a class-action to ensure that other juveniles in OYA custody could benefit from any favorable ruling they obtained.

In September 2017, the district court adopted Acosta’s report and recommendation and granted the defendants’ motion for abstention as to Canales-Robles’ claims for injunctive relief, but denied their motion for abstention as to his other claims. This case, which remains pending, addresses important topics related to access to court claims, the application of Heck and the Younger and Pullman abstention doctrines. See: Canales-Robles v. Peters, U.S.D.C. (D. Or.), Case No. 6:16-cv-01395-AC; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 144899. 

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Related legal case

Canales-Robles v. Peters